Calliope: (End of) Summer Releases

27 08 2020

By Peter Vetsch

[These bottles were provided as samples for review purposes.]

I have recently seen an opinion expressed more and more on wine-drenched social media:  that wine should be more expensive.  The basis behind the statement is that quality farming techniques, proper vineyard vigilance, ethical labour compensation and the avoidance of interventionist winemaking heuristics all cost money, and supporting a rigorous and chemical-free production process not only pays off in the result, but is worth paying more for on the shelf.  I empathize with the sentiment, and generally agree with the idea that more handmade vine-growing and winemaking processes necessitate a greater degree of care and focus in order to achieve success, which in turn can raise the ceiling of a wine’s potential.  I routinely pay more money for wines like this, which strive for quality through attentiveness.

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That said, there will always be a place for gateway wines, for both economic and marketing reasons.  There is a fairly significant portion of the wine-drinking population who won’t, or can’t, pay substantial sums for a single bottle of wine, regardless of its ostensible merit or authenticity.  In addition, our closest local winemaking industry here in Alberta, the Okanagan Valley next door, already faces pricing pressures to land on retail shelves at costs that are at least somewhat competitive to the Chilean and Argentinian offerings in the next aisle over, due to higher land and personnel costs and a host of other reasons.  If you want to convince people to pay a bit more for a certain region’s wines and to drink better as a result, you have to start them somewhere that combines both immediate enjoyment and and a subtle hint that they’re just starting to scratch the surface.  Enter Calliope.

This accessible, approachable, expressive value line from the Wyse family that brought you Burrowing Owl Winery is named after yet another bird (Canada’s smallest bird, in fact – a hummingbird found in southern BC) and is designed to offer wines with clear typicity and bright flavours in an attractive package that doesn’t scare people off.  While they could maybe do with a bit less stock photography on their website, their wines have consistently achieved this goal, and opened up the world of BC wines to new consumers as a result.  Calliope’s latest set of releases seek to maintain the formula, and bring some pink back into the winery’s vocabulary to boot.  But first, the whites.

2018 Calliope Figure 8 White (~$20)

It’s interesting that the current release of this winery’s fun, easy-drinking, introductory patio blend white, like the Sauvignon Blanc to follow, hails from 2018 as opposed to 2019, suggesting that these wines get a bit of an extended run in bottle prior to release.  Often these types of wines get pushed out to market as soon as possible after vintage to assist with cash flow and help maintain early fruit flavours, but Calliope appears to have resisted temptation in this regard.  The Figure 8 label bears a base “British Columbia” regional designation because the grapes come in part from the Okanagan Valley and in part from the adjacent Similkameen, a region quickly rising in its own right.  This year’s blend is 64% Pinot Gris, 24% Viognier and 6% Sauvignon Blanc, with the remaining 6% a mix of Semillon, Gewürztraminer and Riesling.  Interestingly, while the wine contains some residual sugar, it does not strictly come from arresting fermentation prior to full dryness — instead, some unfermented Riesling juice is held back and added just before bottling, like a dosage.

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Figure 8 emerges a pale, watery lemon colour, but with shimmering flecks of brilliance that catch the corner of the eye on occasion.  The unobtrusive, slightly cautious nose opens with struck match, apple pear, mandarin orange, chamomile and grass, the combination calming and unabrasive.  Spritely acidity frames a lightly tropical palate dusted with icing sugar and ringed with honeydew, although the texture is fairly chiselled, particularly in light of the predilection of the two main blending grapes to soften and balloon outwards.  There is a slight turn towards bitterness on the finish, but not enough to dampen the overall experience.  A surprisingly contemplative kitchen sink blend that sails comfortably on its own but would also be highly versatile with all kinds of appetizers.

87 points

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Stelvin Rating:  8/10 (Classy, creative, on-brand — approaching pinnacle screwcap territory.)

2018 Calliope Sauvignon Blanc (~$21)

Like the prior white, the Calliope Sauvignon Blanc receives a generic “British Columbia” label designation.  Unlike the prior white, the grapes all hail from the same area in Keremeos, in the Similkameen Valley.  So why not label it a Similkameen Valley wine?  Prior Calliope Sauv Blancs were boosted by sourcing from Osoyoos as well, so maybe it’s as simple as not wanting to change a perfectly good (and technically accurate) label template.  2018 was a solid vintage in BC, thanks to a warm spring to kick-start grape growth and a cool summer to extend hang time and prolong the ripening curve.  This Sauvignon Blanc was vinified cool, mostly in stainless tanks but 5% in oak, and left to mature for six months before being bottled in March 2019.

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This white is a visual doppelgänger of its blended sibling, if slightly paler and less vivid.  Oddly smoky aromas, campfire embers and charcoal briquettes, spread across the expected Fuzzy Peach, lemongrass, orange zest and cilantro notes inherent to the grape, blanketing the wine’s entire profile in a dusting of char.  Sauvignon Blanc’s flag remains firmly planted, however, powering a streak of green herbals, celery and lime through the haze.  2018 was a BC wildfire year, and while I’m not clear on the precise science of whether smoke can infiltrate a growing crop, something has certainly gotten to this particular bottling (although it is entirely absent from the Figure 8 above, which hails from the same vintage).  The burned-log traces carry over to the tongue, lending a leathery catcher’s-mitt aspect to what is otherwise a bright and vivid palate, chalk and rock salt lending mineral complexity to Meyer lemon, grapefruit and parsley flavours.  All of this is unfortunately seen through a silty screen, one step removed from the purity of expression that was likely intended.  I would be curious to know if other bottles of the 2018 Sauvignon Blanc were similarly impacted.

85+ points

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2019 Calliope Rosé (~$20?)

This is the first Calliope rosé I have come across, and for good reason:  the last Calliope rosé to which I can find reference hails from 2013.  The 2019 offering is so new that it is not yet described on the winery website and does not appear to be definitively priced for this market anywhere.  However, some digging reveals the blend:  a wholly bombastic and unafraid mix of 45% Zinfandel, 35% Malbec and 25% Syrah.  Why not.  I would expect a wine made from a combination of those components to be a raging extrovert, and the 2019’s brash deep salmon colour appears to back up this conception; dainty onion-skin nonsense this is not.

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A tentative exploration of the aromas is met with a firm, friendly two-handed handshake:  raspberry marshmallow, pomegranate, Hawaiian Punch and watermelon envelop your cautiously extended palm and pump vigorously, with lilting background notes of lilac, rainwater and wet rocks suggesting that there may also be substance behind the bravado.  The shifting, swirling fruits — strawberry? cherry? cranberry? peach? all of the above? — are pure and intense, near-confectionary for a split second before being scaled and shaped by acid and minerals to finish clean.  Brawnier and more outspoken than some rosés, able to stand up to honey garlic chicken wings without blinking, but still agile and carefully balanced.  Stick with the pink program, Calliope.

87+ points


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